Convex reflective surfaces focus light from the sun into a fixed point. At this apex, the power of the concentrated sunlight can result in fire.
“The rays of the sun seemed a more spiritual way of creating fire than human hands”
— John Perlin, Whole Earth Catalog, Winter 1999
The ancient technology of harnessing and redirecting the sun’s power was used millennia ago. Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer, employed burning mirrors to set fire to invading Roman warships. The Romans then adopted the same technology for their own ends. The technology was also used in ancient Chinese and Incan cultures to light fires for the peaceful purposes of cooking and ceremony.
Burning mirrors reveal how the power of nature has been harnessed by humans for different purposes. This also shows how the intention behind a technology’s use is as significant as the technology itself. Archimedes’ burning mirrors channeled forces of nature for a process of destruction. Millennia later, scientists working on the Manhattan Project figured out how to assert further control over nature by splitting the atom in order to create a nuclear weapon. The manipulation of nature for the purposes of warfare has had world-changing consequences. We should be humbled by the powerful energies that nature stores and releases.
To protect the sacredness of life, we are reminded of the importance of living intentionally within the boundaries of nature and not attempting to assert control over it. To reconnect with the peaceful power of burning mirrors, we wonder what it will feel like to light a fire for cooking by focusing the sun’s rays, or make ceremonial offerings in this way. How might we be uplifted by displaying reverence to life-giving sources like the sun in our daily activities? How might we reintegrate an intuitive spirituality from channeling nature’s energy within our technologies?
We can begin by exploring various ways to live closer to nature. Arcology—a mashup of architecture and ecology—presents a mode of creating ecologically low-impact habitats for humans. In the American Southwest, Arcosanti stands as a living example of this concept.* There, in this desert location, about 80 residents live and work together in an architectural setting conscious of the natural landscape in which it’s integrated. In the United Arab Emirates, the experimental Masdar City ambitiously attempted to become a thriving city with buildings that could adapt to the weather throughout the day. While the large scale project of Masdar City is currently on hold, we can still continue to conjure up inspiration and search for more nuanced ways to incorporate nature into the architecture of our lives.
People and planet will all benefit from human endeavors becoming more environmentally conscious. Wherever there are healthy living soils, there’s a good chance of finding healthy living people. The notion of burning mirrors can serve to inspire a closer, and more respectful, relationship between technology and nature. Our hypothesis is that the more we learn to converge nature and technology, the more we will feel connected to the power and purpose of who we are meant to be in every conceivable way.
Listen up. Turn off the TV. Turn down the radio. Put down your phone. Take a break from the news. Look around. Nature resonates with life in all dimensions.
“The capacity to drive away a thought once and for all is the door to eternity. The infinite in an instant.”
— Simone Weil
Where we place our attention directs our reality. Emerging from a period in which our attention has been confiscated, reclaiming our agency over our attention represents an important step toward liberation.
The moment we open our phones we are compressing our sphere of choice into the apps which all vie for our attention. When we set our phones aside, we get to opt out of the “attention economy”. In that less mediated space, we open ourselves to the world in a more receptive state. We receive the opportunity to explore and see what serendipity provides us.
As writer Dan Nixon points out in his article about how attention constitutes a way of being alive to the world, “there can be beauty and wonder in the unadorned act of ‘experiencing’.”* In this sense, pure experience offers a connection to the eternal, because there is no distraction placing our attention in a fixed place or time, Nixon posits that attention, as a form of unmediated experience, relates to what Simone Weil referred to as “the infinite in an instant”. We are inspired by this framework for attention, and feel that thinking of attention, as experience, and not a resource, is an impactful way to reclaim authority in our individual roles within an interconnected existence.
Along our way forward, we recognize the value of getting lost as it teaches us how to better deal with uncertainty. Free of overstimulation, we may well find ourselves more prone to boredom, which we must soften of all its negative connotations. Boredom leads to creativity and opens up space for pause and introspection. Stillness and solitude allow consciousness to rest. A healthy amount of idle time is not only good for us, but makes us more creative. It may even be critical to our happiness. With only wandering thoughts for entertainment, we tune into what our bodies might be telling us or what we have buried deep in our psyches. These inner secrets, unearthed from deep within ourselves, can deliver the insights that will help propel us on the path toward regenerative living.
Amidst the chaos of trade wars, military interventions, humanitarian crises, extreme weather, and injustice everywhere, peace also exists, and is attainable through the combined efforts of countless committed individuals.
It’s easy to get lost in a moment, lost in oneself, in thought, in action, but getting lost is not always so bad. Sometimes getting lost allows us to become present. Presence is a necessary condition for calm, thoughtful, and advantageous decisions to be made.
When we make decisions based on urgency, we are often stressed, and therefore do not make the best decisions. When we can plan, consider consequences, and think about what we’re going to do before we do it, we make more informed, and generally, wiser decisions. Our ability to model in our brains what we think might happen is a unique gift. And, if we use this gift in concert with a positive mindset, we can make even more capable decisions.
Thinking about architecture to support sustainable living systems helps us look into a positive future. These mindful activities also bring us into closer connection with the infinite. Similar to how distancing from ego enhances awareness from a selfless perspective, there is a great abundance of energy and power in the infinite for it contains all of life in countless forms. In thinking forward on a global and local scale, we feel all business activity should address: societal progress and wellbeing, interconnectivity, global equitability, and preserving authenticity in every relationship, experience, and environment.
With a rise in collective synchronicity, individual authority and responsibility for one’s own energy remains paramount. Integrity, empowerment, and the freedom to define one’s best self at the benefit, and not expense, of any other life will be the pillars of personal, societal, and environmental stewardship. It’s time to blend our abilities. It’s time to produce a balanced version of what physical and digital interaction can be.
At this point, looking forward, the single biggest contributor to arriving at the foundation for a positive future a generation from now will be mass adoption of circular principles and patterns in our economic and industrialized systems. Circularity, in this sense, means both deriving ways to keep resources in use as long as possible and also ensuring that all parts of a corresponding system benefit from those resources. This approach resembles the circulatory systems of our bodies, in which networks of blood, blood vessels, and the heart all work together to supply oxygen and nutrients throughout the body and remove unnecessary waste. * There’s no shortage of examples to borrow from nature when it comes to circularity. From the solar system itself with orbital arcs, shape of planets, to the structure of a simple food chain, to more personal matters like menstrual cycles, humans are surrounded by the cyclical nature of circularity, and benefit tremendously from incorporating its structure into our collective activities.
“Implementing circular economy opportunities would result in a decrease in consumption of non-renewable resources, including fossil fuels, by 49% in 2030 and 71% in 2040.” — Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The Circular Economy Opportunity for Urban and Industrial Innovation in China (2018) **
“The accident is an inverted miracle, a secular miracle, a revelation. When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.” — Paul Virilio, 1999
As we learn from the mistakes of technologies built around neuro-feedback loops designed to manipulate people’s behavior and sensations, we become more aware of what we decide to integrate into our lives and how those micro-decisions play a major role in how we perceive reality. The more we incorporate a mindset of resilience, receptiveness, and adaptability into our practices, the more that we can leverage innovation to help guide approaches to a global paradigm of morality.
Tap the source of universal connectedness. Through a greater awareness of interconnections, we can revise our social and economic systems with healing and harmony in mind.
“In the long term, it’s not a question of if things go wrong, but when. The ethical concerns of innovation thus tend to focus on harm’s minimization and mitigation, not the absence of harm altogether.” ⁂
— Tom Chatfield
“History shows that every technical application from its beginnings presents certain unforeseeable secondary effects which are more disastrous than the lack of the technique would have been.” – Jacques Ellul, 1954
We need to be mindful of how we approach technology’s exponential effects. In the last decade, the buzzword of “disruption” described how industries served by longstanding business models were upended by the applications of new technology. Disruption became a kind of synonym for innovation. Now, as we approach 2020, we can see that this model of disrupting the status quo through novel solutions to existing challenges, is insufficient to heal humanity on the whole. Healing is a process, not a set of solutions. Thinking of disruption as a metric for success is problematic. We became so wrapped up in a quest for solutions that we forgot we’re not here to solve life. What we can solve, however, are the problems we’ve created that disrupt life. Problems like families not being fed or having adequate shelter or simply getting to spend enough time together. In this way, the focus of innovation can become more tied to holistically-revising systemic, economic standards. A sustainable, socially desirable, and ethically acceptable model for business will also have to be acceptable for the planet on the whole.
“The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. It is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing. And the deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
As long as the impetus for innovation, within the business sector, remains engrained in the current economic system of capitalism, we don’t have much of a chance at affecting the kinds of change that we desperately need. This is why the value of slowing down and being more attentive to the true needs of life is so important.
Now’s the time to figuratively lift a flame to money. We can feel the flickering embers begin to catch fire beneath the sodden deadwood of an old, stagnant worldview in which profit defines value. By inserting more uplifting values, like integrity, in place of corrupting principles, like profit, the entire machinery of our economic system will shift its gears into much more fluid and empowering dynamics. As we learn to better incorporate economic stimulus packages to circulate capital to areas that have suffered from neglect and more of the population thrives, ideas will be able to cascade around ways to heal damaged relationships between people and planet.
Challenges don’t exist in vacuums. Each challenge we encounter has a relationship to another, most likely larger, problem. Economic injustice is connected to greed and a desire for domination. Economic justice will arise through relationships founded on solidarity and a desire for cooperation. In order to innovate our way beyond the conventions constraining our ability to live sustainably on this planet, we need to consider risks in terms of relationships. How might our own seemingly independent decisions affect others? By considering the connections between how we live and the conditions of our current economic system, we can better see where the problems emerge. With this knowledge we can begin to break open empowering definitions of wealth, aid, and exchange.
From scientific conundrums to the drama of daily life, how can we make sense of everything being connected when we
can feel so torn apart?
The human species does not like a question left unanswered. The unexplained must be explained. It feels important to us that we try to satisfy our various curiosities. Ever since the days of our earliest ancestors, we’ve been on a perpetual search to understand the universe.
Along the way toward this knowledge, we became storytellers. We began telling ourselves creation myths. These myths were attempts to derive some sense of meaning out of the mysteries of nature. Why does everything we see around us appear as it does? Where did it all come from? What is the cause that led to any person being present at a given moment?
The earliest religious stories justified and shaped the society around them. Some crafted epic tales of a conflict between good and evil, and our role within this battle. Some helped to establish social classes in their tellings of the differences between people. Regardless of the detail, they all share one general purpose: to create order from the apparent chaos of the world.
Despite an entirely different methodology, science seeks to answer these same questions. It just takes a more evidence-based approach toward determining the exact nature of the universe.
General relativity and quantum field theory are the two dominant theories of physics that have looked to shed light on these inquiries. Since their inception, they have both been proven almost entirely correct, and capable of being used to explain the mechanisms behind almost all facets of the observable universe. But there’s a problem between these two candidates for describing all nature. They cannot both be correct. They are ultimately incompatible with one another, and are only functional when used in their respective area of application. General relativity helps us understand the mechanics of large, high-mass objects, like galaxies, interacting gravitationally. Quantum field theory explains the mechanics of small, low-mass elements, like molecules, using the fundamental forces of weak, strong, and electromagnetic interactions. * The fundamental force of gravity sits apart from the other three fundamental forces of weak and strong nuclear forces, and electromagnetism. String theory emerged in the 1970s as a promising attempt to unify these forces into a theory of everything, but has suffered its own setbacks. At the time of writing, there is absolutely no scientific consensus on a grand theory of everything that accounts for all four of these forces in a single cohesive model. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that one comprehensive theory may never be possible.
In their 2010 book The Grand Design, physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow proposed the idea of “model-dependent realism” to reconcile the possibility of co-existing theories. The concept states that the objective truth of a given model is not its most important element. Any model or theory of the world should be evaluated on the basis of its usefulness alone. Do the rules outlined within the model match up correctly with observations of the world? Does it allow us to make accurate predictions? If this is true, then the model can be considered valid. It may not tell us the whole truth, but it provides enough truth to broaden our knowledge and increase our capacities. Early humans didn’t need to understand thermodynamics to know that fire burns. However they conceptualized it, they still learnt how to use fire to cook.
Model-dependent realism negotiates with our limitations. The concept accepts, as a possibility, that a framework that fully explains objective reality is forever beyond our reach. It puts forth the idea that the best we can do is to find approximations of reality that are nonetheless capable of generating understanding of the mechanics of our world. **
Our entire perception of the world we inhabit is already an abstraction, it is an interpretation of matter filtered through our individual senses. Our brains have evolved to process sensory data in a way that is most conducive to our survival, but this does not constitute an objective reality. However, it would be silly to denounce our mode of perceiving as “not being real”. Perception serves our needs quite well. We can function as humans and do all sorts of activities thanks to our particular interpretations of matter. Model-dependent realism applies a similar type of reasoning to scientific models of the world, allowing the co-existence of many theories. In this way, we are able to make sense of seemingly incompatible observations, like the contradictions observed by scientists between the laws of classical physics and those of quantum mechanics.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
— Albert Einstein
An approach for trying to grasp anything that seems incomprehensible might take inspiration from model-dependent realism. This notion could be just as useful for understanding global society as it is for dealing with scientific mysteries. When we speak of unification, we do not mean the elimination of all difference. This is neither possible nor desirable. In fact, it is through the many nuances of difference that strength is found. Differences create resilience through flexibility to adapt to changing scenarios and conditions. The human urge is often to simplify and reduce our models to their most elegant possible forms in order to facilitate understanding. This urge works wonders sometimes, but this tendency has its limits. As humans with limited sensory perception, our entire understanding of existence is subjective. Even still, we can harness subjective truth by incorporating multiple perspectives to advance our understanding of the world. In order to see the bigger picture, we must learn to harmonize disparate elements. Diversity of worldview, evidence-based frameworks and belief systems can all be integrated to create a more comprehensive mode of understanding across the many cultures and theories that make up society.
The term “innovation” has stalled out and been appropriated by peddlers of fleeting novelty or worse. We can do better.
“As an intangible, individualistic, yet strictly white-collar trait, innovation reframes the cruel fortunes of an unequal global economy as the logical products of a creative, visionary brilliance. In this new guise, the innovator retains both a touch of the prophet and a hint of the confidence man.” — John Patrick Henry
Throughout industrialization, innovation has become increasingly a matter of technological advancement. Economic narrow-mindedness has corralled innovation for commercial ends. Innovation was co-opted as a tool for the infinite-growth machine. The last century of economic growth has been fueled by industrial activities that pollute the air we breathe and poison the water we drink. More protective policies can stop this terrible trend.
Technological innovation does not have to run counter to the challenge of climate change, it can serve as an important platform for solutions instead. As long as innovation follows an imperative of economic growth, however, it will have a hand in environmental degradation and the impoverishment of people. This is the scenario we must most ardently fight against while still upholding a vision of innovation that can help get us out of the knotted mess we’re in.
The unending cascade of technologies, products, and services sold as innovative are so often little more than incremental changes to something that already exists. This type of innovation reinforces dominant paradigms and is incapable of fundamentally altering the most meaningful conditions of society in a positive way. If we lived in a post-scarcity egalitarian society, this would not be a problem. But we do not as of yet have that luxury.
The fruits of the contemporary age seem plentiful. The shiny toys in our pockets, on our desks, or in the corners of our living rooms, are all gateways to all kinds of indulgence. Feeling hungry and lazy? A few taps is all you need to propel a pizza right to your door. Bored? Binge yourself into a state of catatonia on the latest season of a TV show. Need to get across town in a hurry? Summon a stranger from the Internet and climb into their car.
Innovation should be helping us to leap outside convention, not streamlining access to instant gratification. Human economic activity is essentially an attempt to make organizational order out of the chaos of material resources. This is performed almost uniformly across the globe in line with the tenets of capitalism, which has created an order of systemic exploitation, violence, and corruption. Innovation, as a means for radical change, therefore carries a responsibility to help undo this damaging setup.
The process of innovation is itself ethically neutral. Intent has a great deal to do with achieving innovation’s proper application. When applied to areas like war, surveillance, and interrogation, innovation can be terrifying in its destructive capacity. Human history is scarred with moments in which vast amounts of human ingenuity were placed in the service of wreaking havoc on life and planet.
Today, the word innovation is used in campaign slogans to sell new products. Tomorrow, innovation could be considered the means by which the established order is overturned and replaced by a system supporting creativity, inclusivity, and evolving technologies that help humanity transcend every limitation.
“The time is always right to do right.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Innovation, as a specialized field within the business sector, will take on much greater relation to a diverse range of activities within creative-based ecosystems in the coming decades. The source of this reverberation stems from the underlying need to address repair and sustainable growth in all areas of life. The primary tools to enable this transition will be more invisible than the blunt, physical tools of our past. Instead, ingenuity, inclusivity, and creativity will come into greater prominence as tools for positive transformation. The primary ingredients influencing how innovation is practiced as a discipline until 2025 will continue to be information and emotions. The better these visible and invisible qualities can be synchronized to complement one another, the better we will learn how to balance our intellects and feelings in the pursuit of harmonious initiatives. As an innovation studio, our faculty for imagining scenes from a positive future entail placing a premium on uplifting narratives. We don’t see apocalypse in our future. We have enough history of violence in movies and video games to give us a sense of the apocalypse. Instead, with the extinctions of other species on this planet beginning to enter the millions, we know enough to stop going down this course of action that tears at the fabric of life. With awareness to all in need of repair, we want to figure out how to channel our energies into actively creating a world in excellent health, condition, and consciousness.
We live in strange times. Our world continues to be in a state of transition, yet the scale and effect of change is rapidly accelerating. What once seemed routine now stands out as peculiar. Perspectives are shifting. Awareness is blossoming into awakening.
We’re seeing multiple global shifts in attitude, ideology, and power structures. Traditional institutions have reached the limits of their abilities. As outdated models stagnate, they lose people’s trust and ultimately collapse. Disruption unfolds on every level. Ecologically. Societally. Personally. We feel it in our core. Crises abound.
Inequality continues to rise everywhere. The 8 richest people now own as much collective wealth as the poorest half of the global population. Endless conflicts fuel ongoing humanitarian crises. Suicide rates in the US went up 25% in the last 20 years. Total environmental catastrophe is now an all too real possibility, yet we’re still failing to properly commit to the changes we desperately need.
Our technical capacities are improving faster than ever. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the health of our planet and societies. We have been led to believe that the development of technology is the greatest marker of human progress, but this narrative doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, and must be rejected.
Technology in itself does not offer salvation, it has to be motivated by a higher purpose. The practice of innovation has been diluted into a form of wasteful incrementalism, in which minor alterations are used to justify incessant consumption. What a terrible waste of such immeasurable potential!
Much technological development has vastly improved life for those of us lucky enough to have access to it. Yet it’s still built on the backs of others. Renewable energy is paving a path toward a future without fossil fuels, potentially avoiding the cataclysm of man-made climate change. We can renew ourselves as well.
We have the physical tools we need to build a world in which we can all have our basic needs met. We have the methods to create better standards of living. We even have huge numbers of people who want to work toward this paradigm. So what’s stopping us?
The tools of innovation have become centralized and monopolized. The trappings of ego, endless growth, and a demand for short term profits has left us burdened with a constant deluge of products and services that do far more unseen harm than good. Our bodies, minds and planet are cracking under the strain.
The process and intention of innovation must be redefined and diverted from egocentric pursuits to efforts conscious of entire eco-systems. This means rerouting from a system based on constant growth and personal accumulation toward one that seeks balance, holistic wellbeing and regenerative fortitude.
We need a mass shift in our collective values, and to enact radical new policies that benefit the majority. We must carve out a strong, optimistic vision for how to live healthy, meaningful, contributive lives, and determine the way to realize this purposeful future.
Individuals, collectives, governments, and companies must enter into a new social contract using strict legislation to curtail the abuse of corporate influence, until a drastic shift in consciousness makes this unnecessary.
Full transparency of value chains must be made a rigid requirement for corporate operation. Advertising should be phased out of public space, allowing us to reclaim our attention within our own neighborhoods, and decondition us from brand obsession.
We must refuse to sacrifice the well-being of others for the sake of convenience. Work and life must be forced back into balance, giving workers more time to spend with friends, family, and to pursue personal passions. Experiments with universal basic income must be accelerated to spread the continuing gains of global productivity, and to help us escape the hamster wheel of the daily grind.
Science and technology must primarily be used to advance the social good. New collective ownership logics should replace private ownership as we transition out of capitalism. Accessibility, inclusivity, and responsibility need to become the new rallying cries of innovation.
Drawing inspiration from ancient conceptions of our symbiotic relationship to nature, resources and ourselves, we must develop new metrics by which we judge our successes or failures. We must embrace the current moment of chaos as an opportunity to reset, and push forward together toward a new global logic.
Innovation should not disrupt for the sake of novelty or commercial opportunity, but look only to replace that which creates no benefit, brings harm, or demands too high a cost. Thorough risk assessments need to be performed before taking action, to ensure we understand the potential impact of our creations. Innovation should seek to address the deepest root of the systemic issues and biases we face, in order to rebuild from the ground up. In this sense, innovation speaks to a new way of thinking, feeling, and acting, rather than simply giving us more powerful tools to inflate the issues we’ve developed over the course of human history.
We at PCH Innovations seek social, cultural, and environmental harmony with technology by creating humanistic, empathic and highly adaptive systems. We see ourselves as stewards of our planet, rather than its masters. We organize through the spirit of cooperation, not competition, safe in the knowledge that our success does not depend on another’s failure.
In the new global logic, exploitation will finally be seen as a blight, not a feature of social evolution. Spiritual reflection will begin to erode the mass obsession and identification with status and power. Those who cling to outdated, damaging ways of being will be challenged at every turn, and their worldview exposed as dangerous, harmful, and inhumane.
This overarching change will not happen overnight, nor will it happen by accident. It needs optimists to stand up and be counted; anyone who dreams of a better, fairer, healthier world, and who wants to play a role in building it. Communities need to be re-established, and bonds of solidarity must be strengthened through empathy, compassion, trust, honesty and integrity.
Innovative solutions will emerge through collectives of active dreamers practicing locally – united in vision, strengthened by diverse perspectives, and supported by progressive policies.
Intellectual property will become truly open-source, facilitating free access to methods, tools, and design and engineering blueprints. This is how we move forward. The power of the collective generates momentum; the task is too great for any one individual, no matter how resourceful they may be.
Radical creatives and heretical thinkers have always held the key to ushering in the next era of global society. Now is no different. PCH Innovations strives to aim higher, take responsibility, and manifest the potential of innovation to repair the fabric of life.
Capitalism is at the root of many of the most pressing issues of the day. Our climate crisis and widespread injustice compel us to make significant change.
We find ourselves entering a fourth industrial revolution. We also find ourselves in the midst of perpetual societal conflict. We are moved to explore the relationship between these interconnected phenomena.
The last two decades have served as a sweeping refutation of political theorist Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the “end of history”, the concept that all of global society will come to organize in one ultimate model of free-market capitalist democracy. Year after year, this claim looks ever more preposterous. Meanwhile, the chorus of voices calling for dramatic change grows ever louder.
As we move into the 2020s, the form of highly-deregulated capitalism we’ve known for around half a century appears to be on its last legs. It still grips the world, but its legitimacy is beginning to crumble. As inequality reaches shocking levels and the 0.1% capture an increasingly greater portion of the world’s wealth, the number of people left behind is becoming too great to pacify.
Our political and economic system is driven by ego, technology, and exploitation of people and planet. In the context of intensifying climate change and globalized monocultures, this system ensures an unfair fight for survival. To create a responsible, sustainable, and equitable system, it is crucial to distance ourselves from the unchecked elevation of ego. Similarly, our technologies have become too tightly fixed to our routines, rituals, and bodies. Ubiquitous connectivity has invaded our spirits and commodified our gaze. Humanity has become addicted to unhealthy habits.
We should spend more time in the present moment. We should relax, take deep breaths, and return to nature. If we learn to distance ourselves from the technologies we’ve come to cling to, we can also learn to reinvent our economic logics to close the continually growing disparities between people.
We can do so much better by one another. Throughout the ages, people have been advocating for a fair and just society. We say yes to that endeavor. Our eyes, hearts, and minds are open. We’re ready to listen. We want to see. We feel a sense of connection between creative disciplines, a collective sense of responsibility to address the challenges we all face, and a great sense of curiosity around the possibility of a civilization build around lasting peace and prosperity.
Examples from the past can only take us so far. To create something new, it may help to look to worlds conjured from imagination
A shortcoming of some utopian fiction is an occasional tendency to present a world that is far too perfect. Such work can still prove valuable as a way to reflect upon our own faults, but the ideal human societies these stories feature fail to reckon with the inevitable nature of conflict. Utopian fiction is at its best when presenting a society with all the human flaws and conflicts (like avarice and corruption) that are ripe for transformational resolutions.
Efforts to make improvements to our societies in the real world, should not be motivated by the fruitless desire to change human nature itself, but by the desire to change the organizational principles and patterns that largely dictate how we manifest our human nature through social interaction. There will always be arguments, disagreement, sadness, and hardship, but we should aim to organize society to mitigate the worst and encourage the best of it as much as we can.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The Dispossessed, presents a fictionalized utopia with the kind of nuance that allows us to imagine how such a political experiment may actually feel in reality. Le Guin was heavily inspired by the political writing of anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman, and she sought to explore their theories through her storytelling. The 200-year-old society she describes began after revolutionaries on a planet named Urras fought to establish their own society on a neighboring planet called Annares. In this new society populated by the descendants of rebels, all property is shared. Goods are contained in public warehouses and anybody who needs them may take them. Their language of Pravic was purposely constructed to work in tandem with their political philosophy, and this language reflects their culture by containing limited options to express the possessive case. Work is technically voluntary and distributed according to the preferences of the workers. However, economic necessities and social pressures tend to make outcasts of those who do not pitch in when able to contribute. In this context, life on the near-barren planet can be hard and austere, and utopian ideals of shared resources become more and more complicated.
The protagonist, a physicist named Shevek, becomes frustrated with creeping bureaucracy and perceived limitations of freedom, and he chooses to break convention by visiting the capitalist nation of A‑Io on the planet his people left 200 years prior. He becomes further disillusioned during his time there, disgusted by the preventable poverty and baffled by the market mode of exchange. Faced with his own society’s opposite, Shevek’s experience on A‑Io clarifies for him the importance of the political project on Annares. He flees from the university in which he had been effectively sequestered and finds himself embroiled in an uprising. In his speech to revolutionaries in the working class districts of A‑Io, he explains:
“We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands. You must come to it alone, and naked, as the child comes into the world, into his future, without any past, without any property, wholly dependent on other people for his life.”
Shevek is speaking about the need for renouncement of material concerns. One must break completely from the conventions of the past in order to be free.
“You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”
Le Guin does not present utopia as a final state of perfection. She imagines utopia as a process, not a place. She sees it in struggle, in fighting for change, and in embodying the daily search for the liberation and flourishing of all people. Reading stories like hers encourages us to better define exactly what we mean when we call for change. What is it we really want? Is it more prosperity? More freedom? What does freedom even look or feel like? What might we have to surrender to achieve these things and are we willing to do so? In our search for the next organizing principles that will define the upcoming iteration of the human journey, we must avoid past pitfalls. Utopian speculative fiction is like a testing ground to expand upon otherwise untested theories, and serve as an exploratory tool to help us grasp alternative states of living.
An emerging sub-genre of science fiction, solarpunk, explores a future built on renewable energy, sustainable living, and green spaces. The mindset of a solarpunk citizen is centered around harmony. In these fictional works, humans are no longer sequestered from the wild, vegetation has entered the cities and their homes. The cities are still tall and sprawling, but are now engulfed in plants and wildlife of all kinds. It is still a high-tech society, but all artificiality is softened by the ubiquitous presence of diverse organic life. Humanity functions as a self-organizing organism within these spaces. People work together to maintain the conditions of their existence and do not seek to expand without limits. As a genre, solarpunk helps show us that we need not choose between a false dichotomy of nature and technology, we can discover sophisticated ways to weave them together.
As readers of these genres, we’re ready to see the implications of these utopian ideas live off the page, and add color to our everyday realities.
- The Power of Humility
- Healthy Habits
- Environmental Actors
- Economic Priorities
- Lessons Ahead